In many forms of media, television, print and online, we are shown Images of desperately poor children in squalid living conditions, with few educational opportunities and very little to look forward to. People are moved to share generously because they want to give hope where there appears to be none. They want to support the construction of safe schools, provide adequate learning materials and ensure teachers are well trained. They want these children to have the same chance that kids anywhere else would have. They want them to live happy childhoods and grow up to be productive adults; maybe even leaders of their villages. It’s hard for many of us to resist the urge to help children because we know they are the vulnerable ones. They are not responsible for their circumstances.
But resist we do. For decades our Canadian media and some independent filmmakers have shown us these same images with nowhere near the support they deserve. Why? Because the children are not in a third world country. They are Canadians. They live in aboriginal communities across Canada and their plight is no different than the suffering of children in other countries. The reasons for their disadvantages may be different but they are still children; vulnerable and not responsible for their circumstances.
So how can children in aboriginal communities in Canada compete with children in third world countries? If you want to help build a school in Africa, Nicaragua, Guatemala or Pakistan, there are literally hundreds of organizations doing just that. Their marketing material and online presence are compelling. And the need is great. Money goes a long way in these impoverished places and appreciation is heartfelt. It’s easy to help.
But why do we do just the easy thing and not also the right thing. I fully accept the choice of those who do intense, committed work for children anywhere. I’m not advocating that we stop our global activities because they make a huge difference on so many levels. What I am saying, is how can we justify our extreme generosity around the globe and continuously ignore the horrendous conditions children in our own backyard face. One of my favourite charities Free The Children says on their website, “More than 120 million children around the world are denied the basic right to an education—the key to ending extreme poverty and hunger.” What I don’t know is whether or not children in Canada’s poor aboriginal communities are included in this number. And if they are, what are we doing about it?
The issues are complex and can be very frustrating. Those I talk to in government, in native communities and in my general circle of relationships all agree on one thing. The system as it stands is not working. Kids are suffering. Kids do not have safe schools, adequate resources and the same incredible opportunities that every other Canadian child has.
Recently a friend asked me how this is possible. He thought that every child in Canada was guaranteed an education up to the twelfth grade. Perhaps it is assumptions such as this one that sidetrack us from the truth. Of perhaps it’s that gnawing feeling that it’s too big a problem to take on and one that is increasingly controversial. Talking with Lloyd Fournier of Thunderbird Rising opened my eyes and heart to a fractured system that almost predicts children will not reach adulthood with the skills and knowledge they need. Of course I knew things were a mess. I’d watched the trailer for Andrée Cazabon’s wrenching film Third World Canada. I’d heard the stories about the challenges on reservations from my friend Wilmer Nadjiwon. I read the Canadian Geographic article on the Attawapiskat community’s over 20 year struggle to replace a condemned school. And I listened to the sad news reports of substance abuse and suicide among native children. All I could feel was “Damn. Why is this happening? What can I do?”
So, I’m doing what I can. I’m donating my time and resources to Lloyd’s website. I’m writing. I’m asking questions. I’m listening. I’m learning. And I’m seeing possibilities. I’m hoping. And there is still hope. There are small pockets of determined volunteers like Helen Benn of I Giggle In Canada who work tirelessly to bridge the gap and expose the need. There are teachers in the communities who are showing up every day and doing the best they can. And, I hope, after reading this article, that there will be more people wondering out loud “What can we do?” and then doing it.